What’s so bad about being Idle? It worked for Eric.

Earth hour recently, has got me thinking about the good that can come from doing the career equivalent of switching off the lights for a while. One of the most talked-about issues for employers is the war for talent. You dear reader are in historically short supply, which means that now has never been a better time to take your pick of jobs, or to negotiate a great package. Alternatively, what better time to take your foot off the pedal and give yourself a much-needed break from the incessant pressure to achieve?

At least since the “greed is good” 1980s we seem to have been on an upward trajectory of do more, play less. A close friend of mine working in the finance industry recalled in the early nineties, her boss would get in around 9:30am, make a few a trades until 1pm, and then either disappear, or reappear tired and emotional at around 5pm to collect his car. He was a huge success on all objective financial performance measures. Another good friend also worked in the financial sector throughout this period. She would get in at 8am, and stay routinely until 7pm and often much later. She thought nothing of going into the office on a Sunday morning to work for at least five hours, every week, almost without exception. Sure it got her promotions, until her boss and mainstay was made redundant, and then she lost her job pretty soon after. All those hours seemingly counted for nothing.

However those were the good old days when employers had the upper hand and there was a limitless supply of well-qualified and eager young professionals clamouring to be part of the success story that was the “designer brand” of the top corporates. Sacrifice was expected if you wanted to succeed with some of these employers. In one case I know of, a twentysomething aspiring consultant working for an international firm of management consultants was seen out with her boyfriend. The following day she was instructed directly by her managing partner to drop her boyfriend because he was not employed by the company and so he would not understand the pressures and expectations placed upon her.

You have to ask yourself why do people sacrifice so much in the pursuit of being busy? Is it the financial rewards they believe will follow, or is it the prestige and recognition that they are striving for? Either goal is generally wrong-headed and merely puts you on an hedonistic treadmill, where no matter how fast you run, you never seem to get anywhere. Dr Johnson was an early fan of idleness writing “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired.”

Some people are born idle, some achieve idleness and others have idleness thrust upon them. For the born idle, it must feel like the golden years have finally arrived. If they have partied (in an idle fashion) through youth/ university, to their delight they have probably ended up employed almost as readily as their swotty colleagues for whom youth/ university flew by in a fog of industry, rather than merely a fog. Others are more recent converts to idleness. The moment of conversion takes many forms, but often will be sparked by a critical moment at work usually on a Monday. Having worked for fifteen days straight for 15 hours a day to meet a deadline they had no personal attachment to, they are subjected to a memo from the their boss noting that they arrived at work today fifteen minutes late. At this moment they make a solemn declaration to withdraw from the workplace psychologically without giving the mandatory 14 days notice, and discover a life outside but still in the office such as internet chequers, chat rooms, pot plants, Puzzler magazine, joke of the day/week/month/minute and the romantic possibilities to be had in the stationary cupboard.

Finally some have idleness thrust upon them by a reversal of health or job or both. During recuperation there is plenty of time to consider their purpose and to realign it to matters beyond occupation, such as their family, their hobbies or their health.

It is no coincidence that almost without exception all religions and all self-help books on stress and relaxation emphasise the importance of silent meditation and quietness as a way of being better people. We should all give ourselves a guilt free earth-hour every day as a start to using our energies more efficiently.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.